Russia and Germany have de facto broken off diplomatic relations as relations between West and East continue to deteriorate.
Russia expelled “en masse” a third of the German diplomats working in the Moscow embassy. Thirty-two diplomats were expelled on April 23 out of a total of 90. They left Moscow on a special government plane sent from Germany to pick them up, despite the ban on flights between the EU and Russia.
Once Germany’s second-biggest and second most important embassy after that in Washington, Moscow has now been reduced to a largely idled outpost. However, according to local reports, the busy consular section is still working; Germany is home to some 8mn Russians that emigrated since the fall of the Soviet Union and the flow of people between the two countries visiting relatives remains strong.
The expulsion comes after the US refused to issue visas for Russian journalists who wanted to cover the first sessions of the UN Security Council that were about to begin after Russia took over the chairmanship at the start of this month. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov arrived in New York at the weekend from a tour of Latin America to chair the first session.
Once Russia’s best partner in Europe, Berlin and Moscow have barely been talking to each other since the war in Ukraine started just over a year ago. The German embassy in Moscow has already reduced its staff by about a third since the war began, taking out non-essential personnel as relations decayed.
The expulsion of Russian diplomats was initially reported by German media outlet Focus on March 25. According to the publication, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock planned to declare over 30 accredited Russian diplomats personae non gratae (PNG).
German security agencies claimed that the Russian diplomats were using their diplomatic status as a cover to illegally obtain political, economic, military and scientific information for acts of sabotage and dissemination of disinformation.
Russia warned that it would give a tough response to any expulsions with the traditional tit-for-tat expulsions.
Last year saw several rounds of the expulsion of large numbers of diplomats from several countries.
Poland expelled 45 Russian diplomats in March last year, which it accused of spying. One of the expelled diplomats was given only 48 hours to leave. Likewise, Slovakia expelled 35 Russian diplomats a week later.
Slovaks are traditionally among the most pro-Russia in the region, and the least enthusiastic about US relations and Nato membership, but public opinion polls last year showed support has swung behind Nato and Ukraine.
Bulgaria is another country that traditionally supports Russia, but Sofia also expelled a whopping 70 Russian diplomats in June last year that were accused of spying.
Belgium, the Netherlands, Ireland and Czechia all announced the expulsion of Russian diplomats suspected of spying. Czechia put a new spin on expulsions in April when it cut the number of Russian diplomats serving in Prague to the same number of diplomats it has serving in Moscow by expelling 63 Russian diplomats after 20 Czech diplomats were expelled. Traditionally, foreign ministries are allowed to have as many staff in an embassy as they like and expulsions are done on a tit-for-tat basis, not on the basis of an embassy’s total headcount.
According to the Czech Foreign Ministry at the time, the Czech Embassy in Moscow now has just seven diplomats and 25 other staff, while the huge Russian Embassy in Prague – long seen as the base for Russian spying in the region – has 27 diplomats and 67 other staff after the expulsion.
Washington also threw out 60 diplomats in the first month of the war in Ukraine and Moscow responded by ejecting senior US diplomats in May. The embassy quickly stopped issuing visas to Russians. There are millions of Russian émigrés in the US as well.
Ukraine quickly expelled 13 of the few Russian diplomats in Kyiv after the war started. In all, some 21 countries have expelled Russian diplomats accused of spying since the war started.
In the latest twist to the diplomatic sniping, the US has refused to issue visas to Russian journalist intending to travel to New York to cover the opening of the UN Security Council session, chaired by Lavrov, who said Moscow "will not forgive" Washington for denying US visas to Russian journalists meant to accompany him on a visit to UN headquarters.
"We won't forget, we will not forgive this," said Lavrov, The Moscow Times reported on April 23.
Russia took up the presidency of the UN Security Council in April despite the Ukraine offensive, which Kyiv said was "a slap in the face."
Lavrov denounced a "stupid" failure of the United States to give visas to Russian journalists.
"A country that calls itself the strongest, smartest, freest and fairest, chickened out," Lavrov said.
At least Germany hanging on its building on Mosfilmovskaya that it has occupied since the 1960.
Relations between Ukraine and Russia have become so bad that Kyiv is threatening to take back the building that housed the Russian embassy in Kyiv.
Lyubov Stepanova, a lawyer at the Kazakov and Partners law firm, told Vedomosti that Russia may terminate the land lease agreement and nationalise the building of the Ukrainian embassy in Moscow if Kyiv follows through with its threat.
Seizing the embassy building is contrary to the provisions of Article 45 of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of 1961 (both Russia and Ukraine are parties), according to which, in the event of a rupture of diplomatic relations, the host state must respect and protect the premises of the mission, together with its property and archives, even in the event of an armed conflict, the lawyer said.
The Russian Embassy in Kyiv has been closed for more than a year. On February 21, 2022 Russia recognised the independence of the Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics, which Kiev called a step towards breaking off diplomatic relations.
On February 22 last year, two days before the war started, the Russian Foreign Ministry announced the evacuation of the staff of diplomatic missions from Ukraine. After the start of a special military operation, Kyiv announced the severing of diplomatic relations with Moscow, the embassy in Russia was closed, and its employees were also taken out of the country.
The US has also had a long-running dispute Russia’s foreign ministry over the rent for Spaso House, the neoclassical residence of the US ambassador in Moscow. The problem is the US has leased the house since 1933, but after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the concurrent collapse of the currency, the US is unwilling to renegotiate the lease. Under the old lease the US government has only been obliged to pay a few dollars a month in rent.